Darwin and Genesis

In writing this article I have two intertwining tragedies in my mind.   One is Darwin’s misinterpretation of his own great discovery.   His realization that all life emanates from a single source would better have led him to stress the brotherhood and unfolding glory of life, not the competition and extermination that he emphasized.  It is a theme I have tried to deal with in my book Darwin’s Error:  The Poet Who Died.  There is a corresponding tragedy.  It is the reduction by Christian fundamentalists of the great and utterly ravishing poem that is the first chapter of Genesis to the status of a factual account.  It is like treating Hamlet as if it were merely a historical recitation of events in the court of Denmark.


I want to begin by directing your attention to Antonio Damasio’s two books Descartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens.  Damasio is a neuro-surgeon and his theme is that thought and feeling are inextricably linked.  This is my central thought here too. We cannot understand evolution unless we are brought to feel its wonder.   And we cannot fully understand Genesis except in the intellectual light of evolution.  To read its text from Darwin’s viewpoint is to be astonished by its grandeur and its beauty even more. Genesis starts by telling us that God created the heavens and the earth, but when it goes on to tell us how he did it, it becomes clear, puzzlingly, that the earth was already in existence.  In the beginning the earth was without form and void.  It was already there as darkness.  How like modern cosmology that sounds.  Darwin re-acted against Paley.  But Paley’s conception of God as an external contriver, a kind of celestial mechanic, is about as far from Genesis as it is possible to get.


Genesis is based on the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish in which Marduk creates the earth and the sky out of his mother, Tiamat, whom he had killed and cut up with his sword.  In the Hebrew redaction of this pagan myth Genesis’s word for darkness is closely related to Tiamat, with the implication that the darkness was in some sense an already existing female.  But here God does not create the world by killing her, as Marduk did, and cutting her up.  Instead he hovers lovingly over her face, and breathes upon her in words that have strong erotic overtones. Stephen Hawking, whose mathematics I would never understand in an infinity of universes, tells us that it is mathematically possible to understand how the Big Bang could have come out of nothing.  There is no need for an external contriver.   And, indeed, even I can see that in mathematics zero is not nothing. This is Genesis’s thought too.  In the beginning the earth already existed but in an abstract state.  What Yahweh did was to breathe it lovingly into physical existence.  Aquinas would have loved Hawking’s – and Aristotle’s – idea that the concrete was already waiting potentially in the abstract.

He would have been round at Caius College Cambridge banging on Hawking’s door.


Yahweh does not create in the ‘old man in the sky with a screwdriver’ sense at all.  Again and again Genesis tells us that the creation has a dynamic of its own.  God does not say ‘look at what I’m making’, what he says is ‘Let there be’, as if he is the enabler who allows the creation to emerge into existence rather than its sole author.  This is what evolution tells us too.  Natural selection allows phenotypes that in some sense are already mysteriously present in an abstract way in the DNA and the genes to develop into full physical existence.  There is almost something of the ‘Let it be’ sense of Paul Macartney’s song:  leave it alone, let it develop in accordance with its nature, let it work itself out.


Hebrew poetry works in terms of complementary unities: the poetic phrase is composed of two halves, each of which when taken together contributes to a fuller meaning that neither would have even half-possessed on its own.  ‘Saul has killed his thousands but David has killed his tens of thousands’.  Each half on its own is a merely factual statement of numbers killed, but taken together they mean that David is greater than Saul.  Again and again Genesis employs this dual complementarity to suggest that there is a greater overall meaning in the different parts of the creation than any single thing taken on its own would suggest:  light and darkness, sun and moon, plants yielding seed and trees bearing seed in their fruit, sea creatures and birds.  This is the quest of science too, to reveal the underlying unity that is not immediately obvious when natural things are looked at superficially and separately.


‘There is grandeur in this view of life’ wrote Darwin, revealing his realization that no understanding of evolution is complete without a sense of awe at the grand development of nature’s forms.  But it is only in the very last paragraph of The Origin that we finally get this gust of emotion.  It is to Genesis that we must turn to find the full grandeur to which in its last words The Origin calls us.  Just as the theory of evolution binds all of life into an intellectual unity, so the grand marching rhythms of Genesis, with its majestic unfolding and its repetitive solemnities, binds all of life and nature into an emotional one.   As the evolution of life becomes more complex, so does Genesis’s poetry.   The dual unities become a triple one, cattle and beasts of the field and creeping things, as if to suggest, just as Darwin does, that there is an even greater unity than that of the different organic kingdoms.  As with Darwin, the binding rhythm of the poetry suggests that mankind is not a separate creation but the culmination of this developing dynamic.


How interesting its account at this point becomes.  If there is one great principle in Hebrew religion it is monotheism.  But Yahweh doesn’t  say ‘Now I’m going to make man’. What he says is ‘Let us make man in our image’.  It is almost as if he is saying to the female darkness ‘Let’s try for a baby’.   If there is one thing a Jew cannot do it is to make an image of God.  This is because an image is thought to be not a construction of wood and plaster but the living presence, the embodiment of the unseen reality that it signifies.  But here is Yahweh making just such a living image – of himself.  It is almost as if he is making a mirror in which he can see himself.   As if he had embedded himself in all that developing panoply of existence so that he could find out who he is.  And, indeed, Aquinas tells us that God does not exist separately from everything else that exists, but that God is existence.  God is the all-encompassing reality within which everything moves and breathes and lives.


Ironically, the secular biologists and the fundamentalists make the same mistake.  The biologists do not see nature as it truly is.   It is indeed extended and mobile and countable.  But it is also good, very good said Yahweh, and ravishingly beautiful.  That needs explaining but science has no credible explanation.  It is an attitude that is at the root of our environmental crisis.  We can only see nature as useful.  We need to learn to say with Yahweh ‘let it be’.  Nor do the fundamentalists see nature as it truly is either.  Genesis tells us that it is not inert matter but the partner of Yahweh, to whom he makes love in order to bring forth all the lovely things of creation.  Taken together, The Origin and Genesis form a unity of two halves, suggesting in unison a greater meaning that each on its own does not even half-possess.  Genesis gives us the emotion of awe that The Origin lacks.  Evolutionary biology reveals wonders to us far beyond what we could ever have imagined.  It brings to Genesis an intellectual rigour that increases the wonder Genesis inspires in us even more.


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